By Stuart Bathgate
WHEN Zander Fagerson takes to the field alongside his younger brother tomorrow night, he will in a sense be repaying a favour from two years ago. After all, Matt made sure he was there for Zander’s Scotland debut in the 2016 Calcutta Cup match, so it seems only fair that the older sibling should be in attendance to see the No 8 win his first cap.
True, given Zander is in the same team, it’s a bit easier for him to ensure he is in attendance. But the fact that both have seen their brothers’ first caps is just one indication of the support they have given each other from their earliest years in the game.
“I think you had an under-18 game, didn’t you?,” Zander asked Matt about getting to Murrayfield to see him play against England. “Managed to sneak out when you weren’t supposed to. Mum and dad took him and he came to the game and it was a big step up and it flew by really quick. Got my debut off the bench.”
Mum and dad, Gwendolyn and Jonathan, attend all their sons’ home fixtures, and although they will not be around tomorrow, the Fagerson clan will still have representatives in the stands, with an uncle who lives in Boston being joined by several of the players’ cousins. However, the game will perhaps mean most to their grandfather, Ladd Fagerson, who now lives in Aberfeldy but is an American who studied at Harvard.
Most, that is, except for Matt and Zander themselves. The match here in Texas will be the culmination of a decade and more of meticulous hard work from both men. “I’ve watched Matt growing up a lot,” said Zander, at 22 the older by some two and a half years. “He’s developed into a pretty handy player. He’s a fantastic ball-carrier, has really good footwork and has brought really strong defence. He’s an all-round package, an asset to any team, and I’m enjoying playing with him.”
Matt, who turns 20 next month, watched Zander growing up too, albeit from the perspective of a child who was in awe of what his sibling was achieving at such a young age. “I looked up to him,” the No 8 recalled. “I grew up as the younger brother of the bloke who was making the [national under-] 20s squad when he was 17, making his Glasgow debut at 18 and his Scotland debut so young as well, especially for a prop. It was massive for me. I was very proud of him growing up. I’ve not tried to emulate him, but I wanted to follow in the same footsteps.
“He’s got more caps and more experience. I still have a lot to learn – as does he. He’s always treated me as an equal. That hasn’t really changed. We’re not rooming together on this camp, but we have before.”
The two are very different physical types these days, with Matt being slightly taller and more than slightly leaner, while Zander has bulked up considerably in order to deal with the demands of being a tighthead prop. To look at them now, it is pretty clear which one plays in the front row and which in the back, but there was a time when they might have been on a collision course, with Zander also having set out to be a No 8. At first he was loath to make the positional switch, but it is second nature to him now, and he knows there is no going back.
“That’s in the past, and I managed to make a career playing tighthead. I used to hate all the scrum stuff. My old mates at Dundee High know I played one game at prop, got a sore neck and got absolutely smashed and I said ‘I’m never playing prop again’. They were there for my first cap, laughing their heads off. I’m enjoying it and I don’t think I could trim down enough to be a No 8.”
It is common enough in Scottish rugby for two brothers to be capped: the Fagersons and the Hornes, Peter and George, will be the 48th and 49th pair, according to official records, while 21 duos have played in at least one Test together. Having two sets of brothers in the same side is by no means unheard of either: it was only eight years ago that Max and Thom Evans and Sean and Rory Lamont were all on the field together, albeit briefly, in a game against Wales, while the Leslie and Bulloch brothers all started the Calcutta Cup match in 2001.
Three pairs, on the other hand, is pretty rare in any sport. In the 1997 cricket Test between Zimbabwe and New Zealand, the Flower, Grant and Rennie brothers all turned out for the African nation, but there seems to be no record of anything similar in international rugby.
The stage is set, then, for the Scots to make their mark. It is surely only a matter of time before Jonny and Richie Gray, neither of whom is on this tour, join the Fagersons and Hornes in the same side. After that, the question is which family will bring up the half-century – and whether they will break into the senior ranks in time to make it four pairs all together.